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Life running YWCA hostels in Bombay, Calcutta and Bangalore

by Hazel Yeadon

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Archive List > World > India

Contributed by 
Hazel Yeadon
People in story: 
Rene Thompson (nee Laird)
Location of story: 
India
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
A8456952
Contributed on: 
11 January 2006

Rene with Flight Lieutenant James in the YWCA garden in Bangalore in 1945

RENE THOMPSON (nee LAIRD)
YWCA WELFARE

Rene was born by accident in York, but ’shipped smartly over the border’ at 3 weeks and was brought up in Edinburgh, where her father was a civil servant. After school she went to Edinburgh College of Domestic Science and then taught at Thornaby until married, when she was dismissed as only single teachers were allowed.

My husband, Douglas, was a Spitfire pilot and when he was posted overseas I joined YWCA Welfare and was delighted when I was asked to go to the Far East, as I suspected he was there. He had written that he was having dinner with ‘The Kangas’ who I knew lived in Bombay. It took three months to get there as the P & O liner, which had been turned into a troop ship, sailed into the middle of the Atlantic before going East. I was one of 15 women with all the men and I remember having boat drill every day in case we were torpedoed.

In Bombay I was in a YWCA Welfare Hostel and had to look after all the women in uniform, whatever their rank. I was a Captain and wore a white dress with blue epaulettes and buttons and ‘YWCA Welfare’ on the sleeves. I received £9 per month plus free living and the Army paid for my travel. My job was to act as hostess and supervise the servants. Indians did the cooking ~ there were all types of Indians, Christian, Muslim and Hindu all living together. The Mali (gardener) would carry in the bath water. It was boiling hot all the time, and we were at Church one morning when the monsoon broke and when we came out we were wading up to our knees!

I was sent to Calcutta, a three day journey on the train, and was the only woman on it. I had a carriage to myself, which included bunks, a fan and a huge block of ice for coolness, which eventually melted and wet everything. I bought food from the platforms, when it stopped in the stations. I was quite lonely, but had books to read. In Calcutta I was working in Zenana House, which was on loan from a maharajah. It was a big hostel, taking over 100 women.

After three months I was posted to Bangalore where I was in charge of girls from Sri Lanka, until after the end of the war. The hostel had been a merchant’s house and had a beautiful garden where we had picnics. We went to the BUS Club (British United Services) for dances. Bangaolore was a contonement, and I wasn’t allowed to go to Bangalore City unless escorted.

On VE Day the troops celebrated by getting drunk, then they went back to work as the war wasn’t over for us. On VJ Day there was a huge sense of relief, more than ‘shouting and yelling’. Life continued as normal, as it took ‘boat loads’ of people to get everyone home. The hostel was next to Jala Hally, a hospital town which the Maharajah of Mysore had been building as a leper colony, before the army took it over. We started to get returned prisoners from Japan, who were being assessed for the journey home. One man had inserted a piece of airplane in his leg himself, so he could walk. We wrote letters for them and took a ‘bus load’ to the Dasra in Mysore (an Indian festival) which was magnificent, particularly the be-jewelled elephants.

Douglas came to join me after the atom bombs were dropped and wouldn’t leave without me. I was contracted to do two years or the duration of the War. We eventually went back to Calcutta together in 1946 and then home by boat. It was a long but enjoyable journey, except for a storm in the Bay of Biscay, when the children were the only ones ‘on their feet’. We were all going home and I was pregnant!

Rene and Douglas lived in Norton, near Stockton then came to Newsham House in 1951, bringing up their family. The Family business is an electrical wholesalers. Rene has worked voluntarily for the WRVS as the area organiser in Durham, Cleveland and North Yorks and is a Conservative founder member of the women’s committee, good works for which she was awarded the OBE in 1980.

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